hree cheerful knocks on the door then a pause, the heavy brown door cracks open, and a white-haired lady peeks around its corner. Her face immediately breaks into a broad smile, and the door swings open.
“You’re here! Come in!” she says, stepping aside to let me in. I had called a week ago to tell her I had returned to Beijing, but I was jet-lagged and fell asleep before I could take up her spontaneous invitation to have lunch with her.
“Have you eaten? I just bought some mantou (steamed bread). Come up, and I will prepare something for you,” she said.
Today, she would not take no for an answer. She peppered me with questions about my visit home that, eventually, I gave up standing in the hallway and entered her apartment.
“You have made changes,” I said. She grinned with delight and launched into telling me what she and her husband had done.
My five-minute chat morphs into closer to 15, and before I go, she presses more than two dozen cherries, which are very expensive in China, and an apple into my hand.
“Take it. Take it. I already washed them. When you have time, call me, and I will cook for you, whatever you want fish, shrimp or your favorite pancake,” she says as she gently foists the fruits on me.
If someone had told me when I first came to China that I would make friends with an elderly Chinese woman to the point where she worries about my well-being and wants to cook for me, I would have said “impossible!” And with good reason too, there is the language barrier for one – I won’t lie; my Chinese is good, but sometimes I don’t understand one word and simply make encouraging sounds until she says something I understand.
Another thing is that not all elderly Chinese are comfortable with foreigners, especially black ones. They look at you as if you are not just a foreigner, but a foreign specimen. But she is not like that. In fact, it was she that first spoke to me, not the other way around.
I had been living in my apartment building for several months before we officially met. She and a bunch of other elderly Chinese would sit on the landing outside our building and rest or chat. So, she knew I lived there. One day we happened to go up in the elevator together, and she remarked that she lived one floor above me, and we chatted a bit until I got off.
I don’t recall anything else about the conversation, but I decided that I liked her enough to make a point of always saying hello to her when I saw her. Soon her words grew from just hello to “You are going to work,” or “You are coming from work so late,” and of course the traditional friendly greeting, “Have you eaten?” In response, I slowly got used to divulging bits of my private life as I entered and left the building.
The next phase of our friendship began when I decided I would separate and save all my plastic bottles and take them to her. I had noticed that she and her husband, who are both retired, eke out a little extra income by collecting plastic bottles and cardboard to sell to recyclers – they are not the only ones in my building or my compound for that matter who do it. So, one day, I gathered up my nerve and asked for her apartment number, explaining that I would bring my bottles and cardboard boxes to her. She told me without hesitation, and that weekend I brought them by.
Of course, our close friendship did not happen overnight. It took months of politely inviting me in for me to accept. When I finally accepted her invitation and went in for tea, a new world opened up to me. She asked me questions about where I was from, my hair, my family, my job and shared freely about herself. We laughed together. She laughed at my weird turn of phrase and my animated facial expressions. Our friendship grew exponentially. She would call or send a voice note, “I am making xyz tomorrow. Come for lunch.”
Ours is a very fluid but stable friendship. We do power walking together. She taught me how to cook my first Chinese mushroom dish. We talk quite a bit, and sometimes I just sit and watch Chinese TV with her, grasping a fraction of the dialogue.
In my home country, there is a saying, “Good friends are better than pocket money,” meaning that real friends are rare and more valuable than any currency, and I feel fortunate to have her as my friend.